My guest today is Natalia Konstantinova, who is better known by her social media handle, Natasha from Russia. She is a popular Russian blogger and vlogger whose original aim was to help explain Russia to the outside world, but since her country’s invasion of Ukraine, she has become a prominent voice about how this war is perceived in Russia.
Some of the questions we explored are: What does the average Russian believe is happening in Ukraine? How much support is there for the invasion of Ukraine in Russia? What information is consumed by Russians? What does Russian domestic propaganda look like? How are the ongoing military losses perceived in Russia? What are the impacts of sanctions on Russia?
Some other topics we covered are:
- Commentating against the war from inside Russia
- Challenges and support for protesters in Russia
- Style of repression in Russia
- Reality about elections in Putin’s Russia
- How everyday Russians view the ongoing invasion of Ukraine
- Reasons behind Russian apathy towards the invasion of Ukraine
- Reflection on the impact of sanctions and how Russia is adapting
- Information that is available in Russia and what Russians watch, read, and listen to
- The dominance and influence of propaganda
- What Russians know about the death of their soldiers
- Natasha’s humanitarian efforts in Mariupol
If you like what you’ve heard, please consider liking and reviewing the show wherever you get your pods. You can also subscribe to the show here.
Listen to the podcast here
Special Release: Natalia Konstantinova – How Russians View The Invasion Of Ukraine
My guest in this episode is Natalia Konstantinova, who is better known by her social media handle as Natasha from Russia. She’s a popular Russian blogger and vlogger with a significant following on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, where some of her posts are getting up to 500,000 views. She started her blogging journey a few years ago as a way to help people understand aspects of Russian society unfamiliar to many parts of the world.
However, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, she has provided useful and interesting insights into how this war is perceived in Russia. Natasha lives in the Northwestern city of Saint Petersburg, which is where she joins me from now. Natasha, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
Thank you for having me.
It’s absolutely amazing what you’re doing. As I said to you at the start, you’re exceptionally brave, but before we get into the current war, I feel like we must get a sense of your background. Why did you become a blogger and now a vlogger in the first place?
I’ve lived a little bit abroad, mostly in the Middle East, as we say in Russian. I lived during the revolution in Egypt, and I lived in the Gulf area in Italy for a while. When I lived in UAE, I figured out, “This country has a lot of experts from all over the world.” I figured that people has zero knowledge about Russia. Every time I ask them, what do you know about Russia? They tell me, “Bears, vodka, and beautiful women.” That’s all.
It was so shocking for me. When I tried to tell them stories about life here, they were so shocked. Some of them were asking me, “Do you have reach over there?” I figured that people don’t know anything about the country. I came home at the end of 2017, and I decided that it was time for me to share with the world and let them see how average Russians live. I started my Instagram account. I started to show them daily life, like how the streets look like, how people think, and what we do during our day, etc., and then it grew up into a huge blog and into videos. I started to have interviews with different people. My idea was to make Russia closer to foreigners.
I guess there’s a way to build a bridge between the outside world with Russia. I guess that became very important, especially since the Russian invasion in February 2022 started because you were one of the very few who, from the start, was very vocal and very public about the war or the special military operation, as it’s referred to in Russia. You’ve been quite vocal about not calling it a military special operation but rather a war. How have you been able to do this? Is this safe for you? Give us an insight as to what it is for you to be so vocal against the war and also against Putin. How risky is this for you?
Here’s a huge difference. If you speak in English, you write in English or your vlog about Russia in English, and you write about Russia in the Russian language. I don’t think they really follow up with us vloggers who address the foreign audience. They don’t care what foreigners think about them. What they care about are local activists and influencers.
If I was an influencer with a million audience that addresses Russians, that would be an issue. I would think twice before writing about war or these kinds of things. I would think more about that. I would be critical but probably a little bit smarter and not as open as I do in English. I might be biased here. You never know in Russia. I might think that I’m protected because I speak English, but in reality, it might happen that one day I will wake up and somebody is going to knock on my door and tell me, “Come with us.”
What would happen if that was the case? What would you expect from somebody who’s been speaking to foreigners and being critical and calling it a war rather than a special operation? What do you expect would happen?
If that would happen to me, the first thing that I’m going to do is contact lawyers because there are groups of lawyers that are charity. These kinds of groups appeared when the government started to oppress protestors. Remember, when Russians started to protest a lot, they start to catch them.
They get fifteen years in jail for protesting. That’s what we’re hearing.
Even before that, foreigners heard about protestors only now. People heard that Russians are protesting only now when the war started, but in reality, we were protesting for many years even before the Georgian invasion, but nobody remembers about that. Repression starts to happen gradually. The huge shift happened in 2012 after the Bolotnaya case when they were close to Kremlin. Putin got scared, and then they started to introduce this very severe law to punish people who take part in protests.
Since that time, people have started to donate money to these organisations to help these protestors to get them out of prison or to help these people to pay fines. It’s because the first time when they catch you in protest, they don’t put you directly in jail. They put you first, maybe for a few days in prison, and release you with a huge fine. For some people, it’s a very big amount of money. It might be their monthly salary or double their salaries. That’s what’s happened.
I have contact with these people. My data is there. I only need to click one button in my Telegram chat, and they’ll know that I’m detained. The second thing, I’m not sure how legally they will be able to prosecute me because, by law, I should say it in Russian. I must call it war in the Russian language. How are they going to persecute me if I do it in English? I’m not sure how it’s going to work.
That’s very interesting, and this is perhaps why it’s so good to speak to you. The way we perceive it in the West, at least, certainly in Australia, is that if you are caught, you go into jail, and that’s it. You don’t have much chance with the law because the law, the way we perceive it is it’s all ultimately decided. It’s perhaps potentially just a show trial.
Not all the time. There are so many cases. For example, if we talk about the LGBTQ community, I think you saw that many people were imprisoned for LGBTQ propaganda, and there was a huge case of one girl that was persecuted. They wanted to put her in jail. She was a teacher. She was released, but it was a case of 1 year or 2 years. She won this court. It’s not all the time that it’s so dramatic and so bad. This has happened to Navalny, for example, because Navalny is political.
He’s a political threat.
At the same time, Russian repressions are not like Stalin’s repressions, like how you imagine. They go after everyone. They catch everyone and murder them as opposed to the Stalin times. Right now, it’s selective. They don’t have to repress everyone to make them fear. They grab random people. Sometimes, absolutely unrelated to the protests or activities. Somebody was only passing by with a dog close to the protestors. They grab this person, and it creates fear. It’s not massive repressions.
It’s enough for everybody to fear that they could be next. Even if they’re completely unrelated to the protests, they could be next, and that’s the scary part.
It creates fear in the society. There are no huge oppressions, but still, people are afraid because you never know if they will come after you or not.
The other thing that was interesting that struck me is when you said that they’re not so worried about who’s speaking to the foreigners. You said they’re worried about who has influence or who the influencer is locally in Russia. I guess that could shift the domestic opinion of a particular topic. In this case, it would be the invasion of Ukraine. Somebody who could influence millions of people in Russia, that’s a threat. You who’s speaking to the Western world, I’m sure they don’t like it, but in many ways, it’s not a threat to the regime in that sense. Is that accurate?
Exactly. Foreigners can do whatever. I can say whatever for foreigners. They do not influence internal politics here and they don’t care about external, as we see. It’s their behaviour. We can see what they think of the West, but inside the country, they care. They monitor everyone. There are groups of people that surf the internet and see who writes what, and they talk about what. My friends got threatened in the comments. They’re commented on some posts on Instagram, and then they’ve got DMs saying like, “Delete, or we will come after you.” We didn’t know. It might be just some kind of funny stuff, but people got threatened because of that. They feel like, “Oh my God.”
Again, as you said, if you live in that fear, if that’s the fear that you’re living in, then people are going to be more prone to believe it.
They are more paranoid.
What does the average Russian believe is happening in Ukraine right now? I know that it’s referred to as the special operation, but is that definition accepted? Is that the commonly accepted narrative about this war?
I can’t speak for the whole of Russia. I live in the second largest city and cities are more liberal compared to the countryside in any country in the world. I’m in contact with people from the countryside and the Far East. According to my connections or the bubble that I live in, I see a huge difference. In Saint Petersburg, people don’t discuss war at all. They don’t use any more special operations. People are pretty openly saying war right now, and they complain, “When will it be over? Why are we there?”
People get annoyed. This is what I see in discussions every day when I go and I meet people. I talk to them, and I see that they’re tired and annoyed. They want to continue their life without caring that something is going to collapse pretty soon. In daily talks, people try to avoid talking about that. They live day by day.
When you say they try to avoid talking about it, is that again because of that paranoia in fear? I know when you meet with your friends, you can probably talk openly over a coffee about what’s going on, but can you overhear somebody else? Is somebody who you don’t know at the cafe talking about it openly as well?
You can even walk on the street and hear somebody speaking loudly on the phone, complaining and swearing at some people because they have relatives that live close to the border with Ukraine, and they’re shelled or their husbands were mobilised. I heard a woman screaming in the streets, shouting that they left her husband with nothing. He has no equipment. These people don’t care about us, and so on. I don’t see this kind of fear. They don’t speak about this because of fear. This is my personal experience. I’m not speaking for everyone.
They are mostly apathetic because they don’t know what to do with it, but they can’t change it. They weren’t choosing this government. That’s the problem that people don’t understand in the West. They say, “They chose this government, so we have to blame all of them,” but the problem is, there’s no civil society. People weren’t choosing anything. They were just living, eating their food, and going to work. That’s all.
What do you mean they didn’t choose this government?
There are elections. You can see it on TV. You are like, “They held elections,” but in reality, everyone knows that there are no elections. Even from my personal experience, if we look at all my family, my father and I are the only ones that usually take part in elections. I would go and vote. Others look at us like crazy because they know that Putin is going to be elected anyway, no matter what they are going to choose.
There are always frauds. Everyone knows about it and everyone knows that it’s what creates this kind of apathy because people see there is no choice. They’re like, “We will go to elect. What’s the point? We’re not going to choose anything.” That was the mentality in the Soviet Union, and that’s the same mentality right now. Nothing has changed because Russia has never had a democracy. We’ve never experienced that.
People never choose. There was always a gap between the government and the people. There was some social contract. People say, “We do whatever we want to do. We don’t pay taxes. We get our unofficial salaries. You don’t touch us, and we don’t touch you.” This social contract was working for a very long time, as we see, but it’s breaking because the government says, “You have to go and die for your country.” People look at all of this and ask, “Why should I die for you? You didn’t give me anything. Right now, you send me to die for your ideals.”Nothing has changed because Russia has never had a democracy. People have never chosen. There was always a gap between the government and the people. Click To Tweet
This is the moment when the social contract is breaking. We will see when is going to lead us because we can see that protests of women, wives, and mothers of mobilised men are increasing. People start to speak. War came to people’s homes in this way. The majority still live away from war. War is somewhere far. It’s not here. Nobody has an experience of that, but when they take your brother, father, or husband, that’s a huge difference. It gets personal.
Is that happening in places like Saint Petersburg, or is it still largely from the outskirts or the poorer areas around Russia rather than from the metropolitan areas?
There is a difference. Big cities have big populations so it’s not that noticeable when they take, for example, 8,000 men from Saint Petersburg, which is almost 6 million in population. It’s not visible. If you walk on the street, you will not notice that something is going on, but when I message my friends from villages, like in Siberia, they tell me, “They took 200 men from my village,” and the village is around 1,000 people. It’s a huge thing. When only two of them return back home, it’s pretty visible for people. I’ve experienced this personally. My friend lives close to the village. Half of his village was taken, and only 2 people from this 200 returned back. They returned back injured even. They’re not healthy.
I guess that’s leading to another aspect I wanted to explore because what we are hearing is that up to 100,000 soldiers have died or have been wounded so far on both Ukraine and Russia. There are 100,000 soldiers who are either dead or wounded, which is an extraordinary number. Is this being discussed now more and more in Russia? I know you’re saying that wives are starting to protest, partners, and so on, but is it gathering momentum? Is this something that there’s some hope behind us that could have an impact?
I can’t tell you for sure because I don’t know how the government is going to react and if they will increase repressions or they will not increase repressions. It depends on many things right now. Russia is pretty unpredictable. One thing I learned from all of this is that it’s impossible to predict anything here.
Why is that the case?
It’s because when you analyse something, you try to be rational. You all the time try to collect facts and build your theory on these facts, but from what we saw, the Russian government takes decisions. I don’t know based on which facts, honestly. Many of their decisions don’t make sense at all. Probably, Putin was getting false information. I don’t know what’s happened there, but no sane person will go and invade his neighbour. It didn’t make sense at all because it was absolutely clear to every sane person back then that Russia was going to lose this war. It’s not going to win. It’s impossible to win because these people are to protect their country.
The Western is going to support them. These people are not Nazis. It’s nonsense. Everyone knew about it. This is our neighbours, our friends, and our relatives who live there. Those people who have relatives knew everything. There are problems between countries. There were always problems there, but it’s not like you have to go and kill all of them. How do they make decisions? I’m trying to understand it, but it doesn’t click for me.
There’s no rationale or logic behind it that you can see.
There’s probably logic, but we will know after everything collapses and the regime changes. They will reveal documents, and then we’ll figure out what’s happened and why they were taking these decisions back then.
Do you think that can happen?
Eventually, I think it will happen. It always happens because Russian history is like this. Every time when a new person comes, he tries to erase everything that the previous person has done before here. When Stalin died, Khrushchev came and revealed all the atrocities and everything he was doing. Every ruler of Russia has their own book and Russian pathway. It’s always different under each ruler. It’s not the same as people think.
For us, it’s looking very different. It looks like, firstly, this was an era, but based on a calculation by Putin and the Kremlin that the West wasn’t going to help, Ukraine was rather weak, and US attention was diverted, etc. There was a calculation there, but it was a grossly underestimated response by Ukraine.
I also think that there was some agreement. They were preparing some kind of coup over there.
It didn’t happen the way it was planned.
If you look at the beginning of the war, nothing makes sense. Why did they send this Rosgvardiya, this National Guard, there? The National Guard is not for war. They were preparing to suppress protests, but they were met by Army. Many things don’t make sense, but I guess it was a miscalculation of everything. He was getting absolutely wrong reports of what was going on in Ukraine.
Is it fair to say that, or maybe I should ask you, what percentage do you think Russians are apathetic about this? What percentage are hardcore for war and what percentage would be on the opposite against war? How big is this apathetic middle that’s rather indifferent?
It looks to me that this apathetic part of society is the majority. If not 80%, at least 70% of it, but you can’t conduct research right now.
I understand this is your best guess based on what you hear.
It’s my best guess and the problem also is I can’t estimate how many are against. Many people left Russia. All my friends that were against, they’re not in Russia right now. I’m left alone here with a few of my friends that try not to speak loudly that they’re against it because they continue living here.
Why have you stayed? Why have you not left?
There are many reasons. First of all, my family. It might seem not rational for the majority of people, but I have a father, mother, and grandmother that is almost 90 years old. I was thinking, “What will happen if I’m going to leave them and the country is going to collapse, or war will come here?” They’re going to be staying here alone. At least I’m young, and I can manage. I’m prepared actually. I’ve been through a revolution in Egypt. I will be able to manage it and, if not, save them, but at least I will try to save them.
Another thing is it’s not as easy as people think. I have all my life here. I have a daughter. I’m not twenty years old. I’m in my 30s, and my daughter is here. All our life is here. In fact, life hasn’t changed here. People go to work. Everything is here. Everything is in the shops. My daughter goes to school. She goes to her classes. Everything is like how it was. It’s not easy. If I’m going to move somewhere, I will not have money. My daughter goes to school for free. Russia has a very shared social policy.
She studies robotics for free. She studies everything because Saint Petersburg is not a village. Saint Petersburg is a quite famous city. It’s not the worst place to live in, honestly speaking. To take her and drag her out of her bubble and circle is not an easy decision. The third reason is I was thinking that I can’t miss these historical moments.
Speaking to you, who would deliver this information? Another thing is I have to. There will be huge transformations in this country. I can’t say how they will be positive or negative yet. I don’t see positive changes until now. Unfortunately, I’m not so optimistic, but still, you know that I vlog about Russia. I vlog not because of the money or because I want to earn it so much and be a rich person. I vlog because it’s something that I have a passion for. I love it. I love to explain to people, and they come to me and say, “That’s a huge insight. Thank you so much.” You feel like you’re doing something valuable in your life.
You are a communicator, and you are doing something very special. You are providing the world with a very unique insight into the Russia of today and the Russian mindset. I think that’s admirable, rare, unique, and hugely important because I think we don’t see the human side of Russia. It’s very easy for us to fall into the camp of hating all Russians. It’s very easy for people to do that, and we see this. You and I talked about this a little bit before we started. The quick divisions that you see on Twitter and TikTok. How quickly people go to extremes because they have one idea and one vision. They paint the entire country with that single brush, and you are doing something to help alleviate that.
That’s the point, and I felt this responsibility. When the war started, a lot of journalists reached me, and they were asking me. I was speaking openly and trying to deliver a Russian point of view. After these videos, many Russians messaged me, and they were telling me, “At least there’s somebody who speaks for us. Thank you for doing this.”
You feel like you are doing something important because it’s not only for foreigners. The foreigners understand, but these Russians are in very complicated situations. These Russians are against this war, but they can’t speak because they are scared or for other reasons, they have issues, or they can’t speak English at all. They are not heard. I remember I was almost crying. There was a documentary I was taking part in for Canadian TV. I sat there.
I’m speaking here alone, but behind me, there are hundreds and thousands of voices that can’t be heard. It’s not only me speaking here right now. People messaged me after that, “Thank you so much, Natasha. Thank you for doing this.” I felt like I can’t leave. At least these voices can be heard through me, but still, it’s important.I'm speaking here alone, but behind me are hundreds and thousands of voices that can't be heard. Click To Tweet
It’s important and I know that there’s a lot of interest even amongst the people that I’ve mentioned that I’ll be speaking with you because we don’t hear the everyday Russian’s perspective at all. One thing that I want to pick up on is that you said that life hadn’t changed much for you in St. Petersburg. What impact are the sanctions having on everyday life in Russia, or are they having an impact?
Sanctions have a huge impact, but the average people don’t notice it. That’s the problem. Whenever I speak with my friends who are in business, it’s a huge drama. The only thing that I hear is when I say, “How are you?” It’s usually swearing words, how everything is bad, and how they hate the government and everything. They try to manage, but there are many issues in different kinds of industries. It was absolutely invisible before.
For example, if you go to shop, you see these packages of juices. The juices were very colourful and everything. Right now, you go, and it’s blank white colour. What’s happened? It’s because the dye that they used to buy this colour was all imported. They didn’t have it. They have to reduce. Would you ever think that would be the issue? Also, packaging. Tetra Pak left Russia. If you go on the packaging, it’s not a Tetra Pak. It’s like brownish colour weird Russian packaging. You see these kinds of changes, but directly, they do not affect you. They’re still juice. It’s white, but it’s still juice.
Coca-Cola left. The factory is still here. They still produce but under another name. It’s still the same Coca-Cola, but now it’s called Dobry. Technically, you don’t see Coca-Cola anymore, or you don’t see McDonald’s but it’s the same stuff. We go to this McDonald’s that they bought or they took, and it’s not any different. It’s the same ice cream and the same food. Even people don’t call it Vkusno i tochka. They call it McDonald’s. They say, “Let’s go to McDonald’s.”
It’s because it’s part of the cultural vocabulary.
Technically for them, nothing has been changed. For cars, spare parts are a huge problem. My businessman friends were driving a BMW. Now they have to put not the original spare parts but Chinese spare parts. In money matters, it’s the same. Nothing has changed for them, but it’s Chinese. It won’t be as good as the original one. Still, the car is moving, but on a daily matter, the average people don’t see this huge effect yet that much. Maybe some who have severe diseases, some medicine disappeared. For example, antibiotics disappeared. I know that there’s no amoxicillin. There is no amoxiclav. This kind of brand used to come from abroad. If you are not sick, you will not know about this, but when you are sick, you start running and searching and then figure out that there’s no medicine. It’s a huge problem.
You said at the start that it’s a huge problem and it’s having a huge impact. It’s just that people don’t see it. Where is it having the impact? Are there broader macroeconomic impacts that are likely to hit at some point that people are going to feel? Beyond the dye missing and Coca-Cola being rebranded to something else, are they likely to have an impact on everyday people at some point?
For example, in major industries like if we speak about the plane industry. One of my friends used to be a pilot. He’s not a pilot anymore because they reduced stuff so much because there are no planes. They don’t fly anymore. Right now, planes are flying. People are still using them. They don’t see the difference, but in reality, what’s happening is they don’t have spare parts.
They start to cannibalise old aeroplanes to get parts to let them continue flying, but what’s going to happen in a few years? People don’t think of it. It’s the same for healthcare. My friend is a dentist. He’s a foreigner, by the way. He lives in Volgograd. He studies dentistry there. I was talking with him. He goes to practice in a clinic to fix people’s teeth, and they don’t have fillings. They have to put old Soviet fillings for teeth. He says, “I don’t know how it’s going to work. It’s pretty bad.” I know what he means because I was treating my teeth in the ’90s, and I’m aware of how bad it is.
These kinds of things will incrementally erode life as people know it, but it might take a while.
It’s slow. I go with my dog, and there are no vaccines for dogs anymore because most of our vaccines used to come from Australia and other foreign countries. What are we going to do in a few years? I don’t know. If the government is not going to solve this kind of issue, there will be a collapse in many things. At the same time, we need to keep in mind that they are trying to solve it. They are trying to find ways. They build some factories. I wrote some threads on factories that were opened in September, and I’m going to do the same for October 2022, by the way. I’m going to follow up with them and also see if they’re working in the future because it’s also interesting how they’re managing it.
Give us an insight into that as well because I’m sure not everyone has seen it. You can tell me a little bit about it.
It’s a huge list. Every month, there are still factories and sometimes huge factories that are opening in Russia. For most of these huge projects, you need to know that they are subsidised by the government. If the government will not have money, it will not be able to continue to build these projects. I think over time, the number of these factories is going to be reduced because the government doesn’t have money.
Again, that’s not necessarily what we’re seeing here as well. We’re seeing that the Russian government is making more money due to its gas and oil exports because the price of gas and oil has gone up. It’s making more money than it has prior to the invasion.
It’s fair for the time of the beginning of war, but the problem is they’re going to implement a ban on Russian oil in December 2022. The supply of gas also dropped so much to Europe. Many countries refused to buy gas. From what I was reading, I saw that the deficit in the budget of my city, for example, was way higher than in previous years.
We didn’t know for sure because they made new laws and they make it secret, some articles of budget. We can’t see where this money goes and where it was spent to. We will see over time, but I highly doubt that Russia will be able to cover the amount that they were exporting to Europe with China or Asia. There’s no infrastructure even to cover this huge supply or this volume.
What information is available in Russia to everyday people about the situation, both via traditional and social media? How controlled is the information that people have access to? Most importantly, it doesn’t matter what’s available, but what are people consuming, what are people watching, and what are people listening to?
That’s a good question because everything is available if you search. If you’re curious, there is everything. I read BBC in Russian. I read everything. I have no issues with that, but for the majority of people, that’s the problem. They’re not as curious as me. They don’t have time. They go to work. They come home, and they want to lie on the sofa and relax until the next day. They watch TV and play Counterstrike or something like that or watch football.
What they do is I always measure by the experience of my parents because they are average people. My dad is a teacher. He comes from work, opens the TV, and watches Russian propaganda state channels. What do they say there? I think you all can see it in your news as well. Some people analyse it like it’s absolutely nonsense. Most of the time, it’s pretty easy to debunk anything they say, but do people spend time to go and search to debunk it? Of course, no. Most of them become like zombies, and they repeat the same thing that state TV says. Not everyone is watching TV, but most of the Russian media is controlled by the state.
Whenever they go to the internet and they check Russian news, it’s going to be owned by Putin’s friends or relatives’ channels that will post only a certain opinion. You will never see something different. They will not be able to go and see BBC open up. To read BBC, you have to install a VPN. Not everyone knows what a VPN is. It’s not stable in most cases. You have to spend some time on that.
The learning curve is quite steep to even get access to that different information. Most people won’t have the time, the interest, or the will. I guess, coupled with the fact that you said that most people just want to live their lives because they have to earn their living and feed their children and families. That’s not dissimilar to the West in many ways when we’re talking about the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, which were wars that were over there. Even though for you, it’s relatively close. It’s just next door, but both Russia and Ukraine are big countries. If it doesn’t affect most people’s lives, it’s very easy to say, “It’s happening over there. Let me live my life simply and do what I need to do to feed my family and put food on the table.”
It’s so shocking for me. I can tell you honestly that I was expecting a completely different reaction from Russian society when Russia invaded Ukraine. I still remember the first day when we woke up, and I saw the bombings in Kyiv. I live with my parents together. I ran to wake up my mother and all of them. I start to run and shout, “What the hell are they doing?” The first reaction is genuine. That’s the point. Before propaganda started to work, people started to shout, “These crazy politicians, we should do something,” and then propaganda started to work, explaining to them that they are Nazis, bio labs, and this kind of stuff. They’re like, “That makes sense.”
Is the everyday Russian hearing about or in any way finding out about the atrocities and war crimes that are being committed and the civilians that are being killed? Even the latest bombing of the electric grid, where I think 1/3 of Ukraine was without power. Is this getting through to the everyday Russian?
You need to understand that when there’s war, there’s always war propaganda. The first rule of war propaganda is to dehumanise your enemy. It’s one of the first. What they do is they do not show Russian atrocities, but they show Ukrainian atrocities. The same thing that the Ukrainian part does with Russians right now, Russians do with Ukrainians. It is absolutely the same story. I sit in both communities.
I read Ukrainian and read Russian, and I see absolutely the same techniques, but people lose humanity in all of this. “They rape our children,” and then Russians say, “They kill collaborators. They kill these Russian people.” If you look at all of this, it feels like there’s no end to this. Both sides are doing awful things, but the thing that doesn’t click in Russia’s head is that it’s our country that started it. If our country didn’t invade, none of this would happen. There wouldn’t be any atrocities.
They try to keep people away from all of this and not show them. Remember this story with the Mariupol Hospital, who channelled this kind of stuff. There are many questions about that, but everything is proven already. We see videos. We see Russian soldiers shooting people and killing people. What’s questionable about that?
It’s very easy to make the narrative, “That’s a false flag operation. Those are CIA, NATO, or whatever.”
This is not true. They make even programs to demand Ukrainian fakes to show that it’s all fake. The people are not real and this is not real. What you see was edited and this kind of stuff, and people believe. They look at it, and they say, “Yeah.” If you try to deliver some information to them, they will tell you that you fall under Western propaganda. You repeat the same stuff. You’re brainwashed. It goes in circles over and over again.
What does victory look like to the everyday Russian at the moment then given everything you said about the narratives? Let’s assume that most are happy to swallow the propaganda because realistically, it’s very difficult to bypass the propaganda. It’s everywhere, and if that’s all you’re hearing. What does victory look like? At which point will the Russian people say, “We’ve won. That’s enough now.”
At this moment, to answer this question, I need to first understand what was the goal of war. To win something, there should be a clear goal. If you go to invade, what’s your goal? To take resources, take territories, kill, remove this terrorist, or something like that. There should be a goal, and then you build a plan or a strategy on how you reach this goal.To win something, there should be a clear goal. Click To Tweet
If you stop and ask questions like, “What’s the goal of war?,” none of them will give you an answer. They will keep repeating the same narrative. For example, we fight Nazis. Tomorrow, they say we are freeing the people of Donbas. The day after tomorrow, it’ll be, “We are fighting NATO.” Every time, it’ll change depending on the narrative on TV. Deep inside, nobody understands what the goal is.
In order to win, what will be considered a win? I have no idea because I don’t know what the goal of all of this is. That’s the point, and I was thinking about this. I think that even if Putin tomorrow will stand up and say, “That’s all. We’re living in Ukraine. We fulfilled all our missions.” People will believe it and accept it and say, “Okay.”
Do you think this is a Russian problem that they are prone to believing in propaganda, or is this just humans?
I think it’s a human problem. The laws of propaganda weren’t invented by Russians, by the way. It was tested on many people. We’ve seen these examples in history. It wasn’t so long ago with Germany even. I haven’t lived in the whole world. I still have to travel and see, but I communicate with Americans every day because most of my audience on TikTok is American.
I see that the closest mentality to Russians is Americans. I see the same problems they face because America also has its propaganda and brainwashing. They understand me the most when I say, “When Europeans come and tell me how people can believe that they are Nazis. How people could believe that there is no COVID and this QAnon theory? Also, paedophiles that are taking children,” and all this kind of stuff. They say, “Yeah. You are right. It’s the same.” Anti-vaxxers movements and all this kind of unscientific stuff that’s going on in the world are the same.
By the way, the interesting part is that when the war started, and they saw me fighting with haters and explaining, the people who understood me the most were American soldiers. People who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are my supporters. People are donating money to me because they like what I’m doing. I was giving them the perspective from the inside.
They were the first who messaged me back and tell me, “I know what was going on. I’ve been there. Americans also had this kind of guilt.” Those who served there in Iraq and they’ve seen all of this. They completely understand me when I was talking about this war and that it didn’t make sense at all. This dehumanising part also of people, they are only average people that live here. They are not orgs. They are not robots. They do have empathy.
It’s absolutely mind-blowing because you can see this Babushka that shouts, “Our boys are fighting the Nazis.” She supports, and at the same time, she goes out and feeds the cats there. She’s taking care. She’s sitting at home and knitting socks for her soldiers. When Europeans say that Russians are immoral, it’s immoral for them because they see the atrocities, but for Russians, they see it differently.
They see that morally these guys are protecting us. It’s morally good for them that these people are protecting our country. These guys go to die for our freedom because there are Nazis there. If not for our boys, they’re going to kill us all. If you look from this perspective, you don’t see that they don’t have morals. These morals are from a different perspective.
Everybody thinks they’re the good guy, right?
That’s the point. Eventually, we have two nations killing each other and dying. As you say, it’s around 100,000. By the way, we don’t know about numbers at all. The Russians have no idea. The Ukrainians show on TV every time how they bury their soldiers. These are people crying. They honour all of them, and it’s a huge tragedy. Each death is a huge strategy for each Ukrainian. In Russia, you’ll never see that. People don’t even know. They might live close to the graveyards of these fallen soldiers, and they might not know that there is a graveyard.
Are the bodies being brought back? Do you hear about it? Is that something that’s even in the public discourse at all?
No. It’s not in the news.
Do people know how many have died?
They don’t know at all. That’s why I think if we had a free press and free TV like it was in the ’90s. When Russia had a problem with the Kursk submarine, it was a huge thing on TV. The whole of Russia was blaming the government for that. Comparing that time to right now, a few people died there in this submarine. It was a huge thing that almost destabilised the country. Right now, we don’t have free TV and free media. The people have no idea. It’s something left in houses. People mourn at home privately. They don’t talk about this.
Bringing it towards the end, what is your biggest fear, and then what is your biggest hope right now?
That’s a hard question. The biggest fear is that this war is going to continue for years, and it’s not going to stop any soon. There will be way more casualties, and they’re going to be technogenic disasters. Something will happen with nuclear power plants that will affect millions of people, not only in Russia and Ukraine.
The third one is the complete collapse of Russia and the fall into civil war. I understand what might happen if Russia is going to fall into pieces. I’m not as optimistic as foreigners because I know what Russia is and what’s going to happen if it’s going to fall into pieces. It will be under the control of some thugs and these kinds of people. There’s nothing good out of it.
What is your biggest hope?
I don’t even know what my hope is for right now. That’s the point. I wasn’t thinking about this. The biggest hope is the peace negotiations that finally, these people will reach a non-violent agreement when they can stop all this madness. What I wished for is returning back all the territories to Ukraine. Stop it, pay the reparations, and continue living in normal countries. Also, huge changes in Russia that I was hoping for, like changes in the matter of how the government works. I would like to have a real federation. We call federation, but we are not a federation in reality. It’s centrally controlled, and there’s no power in regions.
There are discussions about whether it’s better to make it a republic and all this kind of stuff, but at least I want this discussion. I want free discussion so people will be able to get to places in government. They will be able to take part in decisions. That’s what I hope for, but how is it possible right now? Unfortunately, I look at reality and I see that Russia is moving not in a good direction. I see that there might be probably fights for power pretty soon. That would be not the people that you or I want to be. That won’t be a liberal transformation of the government.
I’ve heard that elsewhere from some analysts who know Russia and Ukraine very well. They have warned that, in the West, we might say we want Putin out of power. What comes after Putin might be even worse.
That’s what I see. All my life, I was advocating for Putin to leave because there wasn’t a position in Russia that I saw that might take charge of the country in case of a coup or anything. However, right now, as we see our liberal opposition out of the country or in prison, there is nobody. Who’s left? It’s thugs and Islamic conservatives that might lead to something. That’s not a good option at all for us.
The last thing is I think it’s worth mentioning a noble effort of yours. You are heading out to Mariupol pretty soon. Can you tell us a little bit about that for people to get an understanding of what you’re going out there to do?
I was searching for how I can be useful to those people who are in occupation. Unfortunately, I can’t help Ukrainians in Ukraine at all. I can’t donate legally because I will be persecuted tomorrow. I was helping people here in Saint Petersburg. We were helping these people who were evacuated from Eastern Ukraine to our area. At the beginning of the war, there were so many people who came here to cross the border with Estonia. I live close to the border of Estonia and Finland.
Many people in Saint Petersburg were volunteering and delivering these people to the border and letting them escape if they wanted. Nobody stopped them. It was their choice. Many people stayed. They’re still here. People from Mariupol still live close to Saint Petersburg. There are volunteers, even the teachers. One of the teachers of my daughter is in this group. She sends them clothes. They need everything. These people came with nothing. They came with flip-flops and wore the usual pyjamas sometimes.
The usual civilians, it’s not governmental. It’s not organised by the government. We have chats in Telegram. Small chats where people hang out. We collect stuff. We send them with some volunteers who have cars to the settlement. I’ve been al always searching for opportunities. What else can I do? I also found some civilians. It wasn’t planned. I was reaching some local Russian influencers, and I found this group of guys because they were advertising their fundraising.
I’ve contacted them, and I was following up for a few months. They were going to Mariupol to deliver heaters to people because people are going to freeze. Their government left them. Russia doesn’t do anything in the matter of administration there. They build good roads there. I’ve seen it in videos when the guys travelled. They build some areas in the city.
There are very beautiful buildings and everything but again, I spoke with these volunteers and they told me that the majority don’t live there. Nobody lives there because you give them a flat, but it’s empty. These people lost everything. How are they going to live in this flat right now? There’s no stove. There’s nothing. It’s an empty flat. It’s just walls. That’s why people don’t live there. I figure that many families are still in Mariupol. These are not Russians. Many people start messaging me like, “These are Russians that move there to leave and to take over the territory.” If I will offer to you tomorrow, “Let’s move to Mariupol. You are going to live in these awful buildings. Would you move?” Nobody in a sane mind would move there. It’s very risky. They die there every day. They’re still shelling.
It’s a dangerous area. As I told you before, delivery cars don’t want to go there. It’s only private drivers that decide that they can take this responsibility, and they go. Companies don’t go there. Companies don’t want to be associated with this. It’s very complicated for companies’ situation because this territory is not Russian. Russia says it is, but companies try to stay away from all of this. It’s private groups of people that organise all of this. I was raising funds for them. I collected money, and I’m going to pay directly to the producer of the heaters. They will connect me with the guy, and I will transfer them directly to this producer. We are going to deliver these heaters to families that need them.
Winter is well and truly starting to set in as well. Temperatures have already dropped significantly. This is potentially, for some of them, lifesaving heaters.
Young people might survive. Even in the worst conditions ever, people find ways, but elders can’t move. They will not move as fast as they were young. At least the young can move and do something if they’re going to freeze, but the elders can’t. I don’t know how they’re going to survive. They will fall asleep and will never wake up. That’s why I was following up with this group of guys who are travelling there. They record videos. They show what they do. I’ve seen it with my own eyes what they do.
I conducted the organiser personally. We spoke. He explained everything to me. It’s freely transparent. I’m transparent as possible. I post every day how much money we get. I will post how much we paid, and I will show up because I will hand these heaters personally. That’s why I’m going there personally as well.
Firstly, that’s admirable. I take my hat off to you because you are brave on so many accounts. I know you won’t necessarily feel that. You feel like it’s your duty but look around. Not everybody is doing it. There’s only a small number of people that go the extra mile.
I was speaking with my best friend. She asked me, and I told her, “I think that I’m going there not to record stuff to show to foreigners or something like that. I go there personally for me.” It’s been a hard time all these months to see and watch all of these deaths. It’s done under my name, and I’m Russian. I completely understand this hate that comes from Ukrainians. I’ve seen them all sitting and shouting, “You are killing us. You are not protesting.” I absolutely understand why people behave this or that way. All these months, I didn’t know what I’m going to do next. I spent all these years trying to make Russia close to a foreigner. I am trying to explain it. Everything was devalued in one day. I could trash everything that I was doing in the trashcan. It was all for nothing.
I don’t think it was for nothing. I think you have a special role to play right now. Even just speaking to me, you’re certainly going to open the eyes and ears of some of my audience at least. It’s helpful to hear the other perspective because we don’t get to hear it often.
I’m glad that I can share it with you.
It’s not something we talk about.
I think the huge problem with why this war also happened and why generally wars also are happening is this dehumanisation that is going on and the absence of dialogue between people. People live in a bubble. I travel around Russia. I show you the villages. I’m not this fancy vlogger that shows everything perfectly. It was the opposite. I used to complain so much. I used to show the bad parts and, at the same time, the good parts. It’s not always black and white. That’s why I think people value me also because I’m not showing only one side of it. They see these usual human beings that live in these villages.The huge problem with why wars are happening is the dehumanization that is going on and the absence of dialogue between people. Click To Tweet
They raise their children. They watch American shows. They sit on the internet and play games. They are the same as any person. This John somewhere in the US is absolutely the same Ivan that lives here in Siberia. If they meet together in reality, they will sit together, drink vodka, and they will be best friends. Believe me. I’ve seen it so many times in my life.
A big part of this show is to scratch below the simple narratives of war, which is what we’re unfortunately being exposed to on a day-to-day basis. On that note, Natasha, I want to thank you. We’ve gone well beyond what we originally agreed on. I was about to apologise to you for keeping you away from your very busy and active life.
I do want to thank you for giving me so much of your time. This was a very special conversation for me, and most of my audience will recognise how important this conversation was. I wish you the best of luck in Mariupol. I’ll be eagerly watching on social media how it all goes. I’ll be sharing it with my networks. I certainly look forward to speaking again because I think this was a really important conversation.
Thank you. Have a good day.